Pictures and Prejudice in the Trayvon Martin Case
The news went viral nearly a month after the killing: a black teenager shot dead at night while wearing a hoodie. Happens all the time, right? Just one of those sad facts of contemporary life in America. Nothing to see here, folks… move on, please… please move on.
But America didn’t move on. Trayvon Martin has become world-famous in death, something he never could have foreseen and never would have desired. Better to be alive and obscure and residing in Florida with most of your life ahead of you. Too late now.
Trayvon Martin didn’t deserve to be lying mute in an underground box at the age of 17. Nobody does. He committed no offense to warrant such a fate. He was simply returning from the convenience store and chatting with his girlfriend on his cell phone, a scene that could be replicated a million times across America on any given evening.
And yet here we are, still trying to grasp the elusive facts in a case that won’t go away. Was neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman out for blood or just taking his job a little too seriously? Was he a racist? Was he unjustly profiling an African American youth who happened to be strolling inside a gated community? Did he shoot Trayvon in cold blood… or, as he claimed, did he act in self-defense? Why didn’t the police in Sanford, Florida, take Zimmerman into custody so the facts could be determined in court? Were they racists? If George Zimmerman had been black and Trayvon Martin white, wouldn’t the police have made an arrest? Where do you draw the line between “standing your ground” and murder?
For most of the black community and the left-of-center crowd, it’s an open-and-shut case of a light-skinned racist murdering an innocent African American kid for the crime of “walking while black.” The fact that Trayvon was wearing a hoodie has catapulted that essential item of hip-hop apparel to unprecedented glory as a political symbol of unjustly maligned black youth. By now, every Trayvon Martin sympathizer and his brother has been photographed wearing a hoodie.
The anger over Trayvon’s shooting (and Zimmerman’s freedom) rippled across the continent. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton showed up to make racial politics, of course, as did thousands of ordinary demonstrators of all colors. In the streets, on Twitter and throughout the blogosphere, irate blacks and white liberals blasted the Florida (read “white”) justice system that allows light-skinned perpetrators to get away with murdering black children by virtue of some tenuous “stand your ground” principle. I understand their anger, but (and you knew there had to be a “but”) I detected a fair amount of selective outrage, too. It’s always a little too easy to blame Whitey.
The fact that well over 90 percent of black murder victims nationwide are murdered by blacks never entered the picture. Neither did the cold statistic that whites are 39 times more likely to be the targets of violent crimes by blacks than blacks are by whites. (I suspect that this statistic conveniently omits the number of blacks shot dead on the street by police, but it’s still an eye-opener.) For the embittered African American community, the killing of Trayvon Martin reopened the ill-healed wounds of the Jim Crow era, with its sickening memories of lynchings and rampant bigotry.
The mainstream media published the now-iconic side-by-side photos that depict an angelic and eminently lovable young Trayvon Martin next to a plump, grim and graceless George Zimmerman who looks vaguely like Chaz Bono on a bad day. I noticed that the exposure on Zimmerman’s photo was altered in some versions to make the half-Hispanic killer look “whiter.”
In fact, some news sources went out of their way to describe Zimmerman as a “white” Hispanic. No… Ricardo Montalban and Desi Arnaz were white Hispanics; George Zimmerman is multi-racial. In fact, it’s said that he has black relatives. But why muddy the story when you can find an angle that maximizes racial polarization?
I have to wonder if those two photos were joined in a deliberate attempt to reinforce the already ferocious public bias against Zimmerman. If so, it was a pretty low trick… especially when we still don’t have a coherent picture of what happened on that fateful night in Florida.
Here’s all we know for certain about the killing of Trayvon Martin: Zimmerman noticed the black teen wearing a hoodie, tailed him as a suspicious character within the confines of the gated community, stepped out of his car to challenge him (despite instructions from police to keep on moving), exchanged words with Martin and ended up on the ground. Someone moaned for help around the moment that the gun went off, and Martin died on the spot.
Zimmerman, the cop wannabe, was at best overreacting to an imagined threat in the manner of Barney Fife, the comically neurotic deputy on the classic Andy Griffith Show. He had been rejected by the local police department. He had been known to call 911 in response to seeing an open garage door in his community. He’s a bit of a control freak and probably needs counseling.
At worst, Zimmerman is a sociopath with an urge to kill and a perverse need to exercise that urge. Barney Fife would never have plugged a teenage kid. But we really don’t know what was going on in Zimmerman’s head… or in his scuffle with Trayvon Martin. The man hasn’t had his day in court.
A friend of Zimmerman’s named Joe Oliver (a black friend, no less) has attested to the vigilante’s kind nature and utter lack of racism. Of course, some on the left have gone as far as to suggest that Oliver hardly knows Zimmerman and was paid to praise the accused killer. As ever, the truth is elusive.
Bottom line: I think Zimmerman should be taken into custody and given a fair trial. Let a jury weigh the evidence and decide if he acted in self-defense.
Around the same time that Joe Oliver put in a good word for his friend, we started learning more about Trayvon Martin: his three suspensions from school, the badass Twitter messages (now deleted) and gangsta-style photo with middle fingers upraised. None of this justifies his premature death, but now we have to look at a kid who not only dressed like a bad stereotype but may have acted the part as well.
With all these question marks swirling in the air, it was premature for the nation to rush to judgment in tagging Zimmerman as a cold-blooded racist murderer. The contrasting photos of cute Trayvon and nasty George undoubtedly contributed to the call for vengeance.
But what if the mainstream media had published this photo of Zimmerman instead?
And what if they had disseminated this photo of an older, edgier Trayvon Martin?
Actually, a number of right-wing websites did just that — and I suspect their motives, too. (Clean-cut vigilante for law and order; surly black gangsta kid with gold teeth. Yeah, that’s the ticket.)
Whether Zimmerman’s photos make him look like a sociopathic loser or a nice guy should be immaterial to the case. Ditto for the angelic young Trayvon vs. the funky older Trayvon. There are photographs of Lincoln in which he looks seedy and disheveled, just as there are photographs of an affable-looking Stalin.
Photographs can be indispensable clues, but our biases, conscious or not, have a way of tampering with the evidence. The ideal pictorial approach to the Trayvon Martin case would have been to show both sets of photos, because the case is that complicated.
That’s exactly what I’ve done here. Neither man was all saint or all villain, and it’s instructive to see both sides of their natures with our own eyes. The impact might have been even more powerful if the photos had been black and white. Not only for the racial implications, but because even black-and-white photos aren’t simply black and white. They have a way of teasing our eyes with all those ambiguous shades of gray.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.